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A Chinese diplomat called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “boy” in a sneering attack via Twitter over the weekend, the latest example of a shift to confrontational diplomacy that, for Beijing, has shown signs of success.

“Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the U.S.,” Li Yang, China’s consul-general to Rio de Janeiro, wrote in a tweet accompanying a photo of Mr. Trudeau.

“Running dog” is a phrase typically associated with Maoist China, an insult hurled against imperialists that is meant to evoke the image of a dog running after its master for scraps. It is similar in meaning to “lickspittle” or “toady.”

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Its use by a Chinese diplomat against a foreign leader is unusual, even by Beijing’s standards.

But China has responded to foreign criticism with increasingly sharp rhetoric and muscular action, including sanctions against foreign politicians last week – among them Canadian foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and the members of a foreign affairs human-rights subcommittee – and the wholesale deletion of clothing retailer H&M from domestic online stores after Chinese social media circulated a year-old statement in which H&M said it would not source cotton from China’s Xinjiang region because of the alleged use of forced labour there.

China has also blocked imports in recent years from countries with which it has political disputes, including Canada, using the size of its market and its economy to apply acute pressure.

Increasingly, it has sought to achieve its goals through the exercise of power over traditional diplomacy, particularly with countries Beijing sees as already pitted against China.

“If your aim is to win hearts and minds in the West, it is clearly failing,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Australia and the author of Xi Jinping: The Backlash, which examines how Western countries have turned against the Chinese President and his increasingly authoritarian and expansionist policies. “But if it is to both prepare foreign countries for a new world order and also display your toughness to an assertive leadership at home, then it is working a treat.”

What diplomats such as Mr. Li have said is partly “performative,” Mr. McGregor said. “But the hard truth is that the wolf warriors reflect the mood of a ruling party which thinks it is in the ascendancy and is in no mood to listen to naysayers.” China’s outspoken diplomats have often been dubbed “wolf warriors” in reference to a nationalistic Chinese action film.

“It is really undiplomatic for a senior diplomat to attack a foreign leader,” said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations and political science at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. But “Chinese top diplomats’ high-handed performance in Alaska apparently energized the Chinese public and emboldened Chinese diplomats to act more assertively.” At a recent summit with the United States in Anchorage, China’s top foreign affairs official, Yang Jiechi, said, “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”

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For Beijing, such talk is “a great way to divert attention away from other governance problems,” said Alvin Y.H. Cheung, an affiliated scholar with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. For someone like Mr. Li, meanwhile, “there is probably less of a downside to being belligerent than of being perceived at home as not being belligerent enough.”

(On Monday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who has himself often provoked controversy on Twitter, said Mr. Li had written from a “personal account.”)

Beijing can point to the success of its approach. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, dozens of countries – including many that are predominantly Muslim – have supported China’s position on Xinjiang and the region’s Muslim minorities.

China’s neighbours and countries that are heavily dependent on trade with China have been loath to take action against Beijing. South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, for instance, are not involved in sanctions co-ordinated by the U.S., the U.K., Canada and the European Union against officials in Xinjiang.

In the midst of the frictions between China and the U.S., foreign capital has continued to pour into China.

In Canada, meanwhile, the corporate establishment has generally remained silent regarding China’s policies. Representatives from the Canada China Business Council have not responded to requests for comment on a Canadian parliamentary declaration that China has committed “genocide” in Xinjiang. And The Globe and Mail has received no answers from Canada Goose, Joe Fresh and Lululemon to questions regarding their policies on Xinjiang cotton.

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Both Canada Goose and Lululemon have stores in China. On its website, Lululemon has pledged not to use cotton from Uzbekistan – where forced labour is believed to persist – and says it has partnered with the Responsible Sourcing Network, a human-rights organization. But it makes no mention of China.

Mr. Li, who has used Twitter to attack Japan and others from Brazil, continued late into Sunday night with tweets directly mostly at the Canadian government over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport.

Canadian authorities arrested Ms. Meng in December, 2018, under an extradition treaty with the U.S., which accuses her of committing bank fraud related to violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Chinese state security agents subsequently seized Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and authorities have disclosed no evidence for the espionage charges against them. Their detention has been widely described as “hostage diplomacy.”

“I am a lawyer, and I know clearly that the case of Ms. Meng wanzhou [sic] in nature is of no legal issue!” he wrote. “It’s a dirty thing done by Canada forced by the U.S.!”

He said the incident makes Canada a “hostage taker.”

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“I hate to use this kind of words,” he tweeted. “But we found that polite words doesn’t work! This is the language they understand!”

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